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Change in the air

Change in the air

Pamela Philipose
The Indian Express
April 19, 2000
Title: Change in the air
Author: Pamela Philipose
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: April 19, 2000

Pathan Shamim is a taxi driver and thinks nothing of driving for 17 hours ata stretch. She is 30-year-old divorcee, wears her hair in a plait, andsupports her son by plying her vehicle between Ahmedabad and Mumbai. Shamimwas one of the Muslim women who testified at the public hearing organised bythe National Commission for Women (NCW) February. She explained why she doesnot wear a burqa: ``Purdah is not about wearing a burqa; it is about modestyand dignity in one's own eyes.''

One Shamim does not make a revolution, true. But there is no doubting thatthere are stirrings of change among India's Muslim women as the personaltestimonies in `Voice of the Voiceless', a recent report on the status ofMuslim women brought out the National Commission for Women, reveals. Many,like Shamim have consciously, and with a rare fortitude, rebuilt livesbroken by neglect and tragedy. Women like Sadia of Indore, who resistedtorture at the hands of her husband. Not only did she leave him and returnto her parents, she ensured that she recovered every article of her dowryfrom her husband's home.

Questions that were never asked before are now increasingly beingarticulated. In the NCW's public hearing at Indore, young women studentswanted to know why women have to observe purdah and men don't. Why do weallow parents to marry their daughters when they are 14 or 15? Why are boysalways placed in front and girls pushed behind? Can we join the army whilein purdah? Why does society allow dowry atrocities on women? Why do girlsallow themselves to go to pieces if they are deserted by their husbands? Thequestions were endless. But it was a question raised by a participant inCalcutta that captured this new spirit most significantly: Why is it thatwhen other Quranic injunctions like cutting off the hands of a thief arebrushed aside on grounds of human rights and modernity, the rights of womenare not in tune with the times?

Zoya Hasan, a Delhi-based academic, who is presently working on a majorempirical survey on Muslim women across 10,000 household, along with RituMenon, co-founder of Kali, the feminist publishing house, believes that thebiggest problem facing the Muslim woman today is their lack of education andemployment.

Already there is a perceptible rise in the demand for education. AbdulWaheed, a lecturer in the department of Sociology and Social Work, AligarhMuslim University, puts it this way, ``I did a field study on MuslimBanjaras in a town called Baheri, in Bareilly district. In each and everyeducational institution there, you will find Muslim girls. They may go to adegree colleges, or appear privately, but education for women is now highlyvalued something that was just not the case 20 years ago.''

Community leaders are also standing up to be counted in the drive forchange. Badar Sayeed, a Chennai-based advocate and former chairperson of theMinorities Commission of Tamil Nadu minced no words when she argued thatpolygamy should be abolished forthwith. She pointed out that there were asmany fatwas as there were ulemas, and laws needed codifcation. In Mumbai, agroup of women had even drafted a standard nikahnamah (marriagecertificate), in which a woman has the right to divorce her husband if heviolates the conditions laid out in the document.

At a public hearing organised by the Institute of Islamic Studies and Centrefor the Study of Society and Secularism held in Mumbai two years ago, theoverwhelming sentiment was that it was time for the community to stoptreating its personal law as something that is immutable.

The resolution passed at the end of this meeting told its own story: ``It isresolved to open a dialogue with the Muslim Personal Law Baord in connectionwith necessary reforms in personal law as it operated today in India.'' Theresolution pointed out that these laws were enacted by the British andcannot be called Shariat law in the strict sense of the term. It alsopointed to the fact that there have been instances when progressive changeshad been introduced in the law. For instance, the ulema led by MaulanaAshraf Thanvi had drafted the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act of 1939,which had given much needed relief to women whose husbands were missing.``There is need for such initiative on the part of the Muslim Personal LawBoard even today,'' the resolution noted.

The irony really is that while in India Muslim women have actually beendeprived of their rights by laws like the Muslim Women (Protection of Rightson Divorce) Act, 1986, under which a divorcee cannot claim maintenance, manyIslamic nations including Pakistan and Bangladesh have effected substantivereform in Muslim personal law. In Indonesia, for instance, polygamy has beenprohibited, while in Turkey and Tunisia marriage and divorce come underregulatory legislation.

The NCW Report quotes Professor Tahir Mahmood's study, Family Law Reforms inthe Muslim World to point out that in both Pakistan and Bangladesh, polygamycomes under the strict control of courts and administrative bodies. InPakistan, for instance, under the Family Law Ordinance 1961, polygamy is nolonger an unhindered or unchallenged right of men. The written permission ofthe first wife must be obtained before the second marriage can becontracted. Further, all marriages are registered and therefore cannot bedissolved by triple talaq. Maintenance is recognised as the right of thedivorced woman and is not limited to the iddat period, as in India.

Interestingly, in Pakistan the whole impetus for reform came from a ratherpiquant development. In 1955, news came that Prime Minister Mohammed Ali wasplanning to marry his Middle Eastern social secretary, while he was legallymarried to his first wife. Sylvia Chipp-Kraushaar, in a brief history of theAll Pakistan Women's Association and the 1961 Muslim Family' Laws Ordinance,included in Gail Minault The Extended Family describes how the protest bywomen over that marriage snowballed into a movement for reform of marriagelaws.

Pakistani women had argued at that time that Islam demanded ``equaltreatment for all wives'', a condition that could not be logicallyfulfilled. Chipp-Kraushaar quotes a group of women social workers who hadfelt that ``polygamy was permitted in Islam, not to set up harems, but tosave human beings from sin and immorality. We, however, feel that men nowfind it convenient to flout those mandatory Quranic provisions which make itnearly impossible for a man to take a second wife.''

But reforming personal law in India is bound to be a far more complexprocess, believes Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor of political sociology inJawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. ``All change is a process of reformistcurrents vying with conservative ones. Given the external communalisation ofsociety, it becomes that much more difficult for the forces of reform totriumph,'' he says. But he hasn't lost hope given the manner in which womenwithin the community are mobilising for change. ``They are even pressurisingthe Muslim Law Board to be allowed 33 per cent representation within it. Andin the forthcoming meeting of the Board on April 30, the question of themarriage contract is bound to come up,'' says Ahmed.

He also believes that it is important for reformers to engage with theforces of orthodoxy. ``Don't end the dialogue. Keep it going,'' he says.

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